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Trump administration sees new Colombian president as an ally in drug war

Colombia’s president-elect, Iván Duque. (John Vizcaino/AFP/Getty Images)

Iván Duque, who will be sworn in as Colombia’s president Tuesday, is poised to become an unusually strong ally for the Trump administration in South America after he made a project of cultivating ties with the White House and spotlighting shared views on drug control, counterterrorism and the unfolding political and economic crisis in next-door Venezuela.

He comes to power as the production of the plant that yields cocaine is at a record high, prompting warnings from President Trump and setting the tone for a potential return to a harsh, U.S.-backed crackdown on the drug trade in Colombia.

Duque, a conservative, hopes to turn Trump’s concerns about drugs and safe borders into a stronger partnership with Washington while promising to revisit elements of a historic peace agreement with rebels struck in August 2016 with the vigorous support of the Obama administration.

Right-wing candidate Ivan Duque won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, beating leftist Gustavo Petro in a victory that will reassure investors but raised the prospect of changes to a landmark peace accord with Marxist rebels. (Video: Reuters)

“When he is sworn in, Duque will overnight become the most pro-American head of state in Latin America,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about U.S. diplomatic priorities.

Trump has had an uneasy relationship with many Latin American countries because of his disparaging comments about immigrants who come to the United States from the region and his seeming indifference to issues of concern in the Southern Hemisphere, punctuated by his decision to skip the Summit of the Americas in Peru in April.

Colombia has long stood as one of the strongest U.S. allies and a subject of rare long-standing bipartisan support as the recipient of some $10 billion in security aid since 2000. But Trump stunned Republicans as well as Democrats when he threatened in the fall to decertify Colombia as a partner against drugs.

Trump canceled a planned visit to Colombia in April that was meant to signal commitment to the long U.S.-Colombia partnership as Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Juan Manuel Santos was leaving office.

Young conservative with Washington ties defeats leftist in Colombia

Now the Trump administration is embracing the 42-year-old, U.S.-educated Duque as a fellow law-and-order leader and an answer to the socialist meltdown in Venezuela, celebrating his June victory over a leftist opponent with a congratulatory phone call from Trump and a White House visit with Vice President Pence in July.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Trump confidante, will lead a U.S. delegation at Duque’s inauguration. She will also visit the Venezuelan border, scene of an exodus of people fleeing hyperinflation and repression under President Nicolás Maduro, and get a firsthand look at one of the areas where coca plants are flourishing in Colombia.

Maduro was uninjured in an apparent assassination attempt Saturday in the capital of Caracas. Reuters reported Sunday that Maduro blames right-wing opponents and the Colombian government.

National security adviser John Bolton told “Fox News Sunday” that the United States was not involved.

In a separate meeting with Duque, Haley plans to reiterate that the White House considers coca production levels “unacceptable,” as Trump’s top drug control official said in June, while pledging continued support for a Latin American nation tightly bound to Washington for two decades.

Duque is expected to widen drug eradication and law enforcement efforts that have worried some human rights groups and international backers of Colombia’s fragile peace agreement.

Surge in cocaine production is a side effect of Colombian peace accord

Left unclear for now is the level of White House enthusiasm for the peace agreement reached two years ago between the Colombian government and the Marxist FARC rebel movement. It ended five decades of war blamed for the deaths of more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians.

The Trump administration initially reserved judgment on whether to support the accord. Although the White House now officially backs the deal between the Colombian government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, it has twice moved to slash funding to back the accord and has declined to name a new chief U.S. representative to oversee it.

The Trump administration is not hostile to the peace effort, “but they are not too involved in it,” said Bernard Aronson, who was the State Department special envoy to the Colombia peace effort.

“They have said they are supportive. It hasn’t been their focus because it was a done deal when they took office, and they are most focused on concerns about the increase in coca leaf that has gone on over the last few years,” Aronson said. “That is a bipartisan concern in Congress as well. President-elect Duque is well aware of how important that is to the future of U.S. support for Colombia and the peace deal.”

Trump and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson did not fill Aronson’s slot when he left with other political appointees at the end of the Obama administration. Tillerson told members of Congress that there were too many special envoys, and that the peace deal did not need a full-time U.S. monitor.

Watch: Colombia’s Santos, at White House, says drug war has not been won

Haley voiced support for the U.N.-backed accord earlier, during a Security Council session in April, and congratulated Colombia for its handling of the flow of Venezuelan refugees, but she noted that “peace in Colombia remains an unfinished project.”

She warned of the rise of other armed groups and the expansion of coca cultivation as FARC gives up weapons and withdraws from territory it held, a dynamic that Latin America analysts say is partly a symptom of a slow and uneven rollout that jeopardizes the future of the peace effort.

“The success of the peace agreement is inseparable from our shared efforts against drug trafficking,” Haley said then, noting a commitment reached in December between the United States and Colombia to reduce coca and cocaine production by 50 percent by 2023.

“The government must accelerate its counternarcotics effort,” Haley said.

That’s just what Duque has promised.

As a candidate, Duque called for alterations to the peace deal that his opponents said could revive conflict. He called for a much more extensive campaign against Colombian and Mexican narco-traffickers and stronger eradication measures, possibly including a return to a form of aerial herbicide spraying.

Trump had lobbied Santos to resume spraying to kill coca plants when the two met at the White House in May 2017, Tillerson later told Congress. Aerial spraying was banned in 2015 as a health hazard, and suspension of the practice was also seen as a gesture to FARC and its rural base of support.

Duque’s opponent, Gustavo Petro, was a former member of a different guerrilla movement who was accused by opponents of being a leftist in the mold of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The United States labels the Marxist FARC organization as a terrorist group, and some FARC leaders are wanted in the United States on drug charges. Some were shielded from extradition as part of the peace bargain, but human rights monitors say the Duque government could attempt to revoke that protection in some cases, as a gesture of solidarity with Trump.

An impromptu Oval Office meeting, a tweet and a change in U.S. policy on Venezuela

“There are basically two policies going on,” said analyst Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli of the Washington Office on Latin America. “One is the Trump policy, and no one is sure what it is. It’s unclear, but it’s based on seeing Colombia as a partner while threatening it” over drug exports, she said.

“The other policy is the old, bipartisan policy as usual, where Congress and the State Department are kind of ignoring the president and his threats.”

Congress restored funding for the peace process, and Republicans were among those quietly urging Trump to back off his ultimatum, issued without warning last fall, that he would decertify Colombia as a partner in the war against drugs if it did not reverse the growth of coca production.

U.S. and Colombian officials quickly drafted the agreement to work for a 50-percent reduction, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Colombian counterpart signed in December. That ambitious goal appears even more remote now, as the expansion of production outpaces Colombian eradication and other control measures.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy calculates that Colombian coca cultivation increased 11 percent from 188,000 hectares in 2016 to 209,000 hectares in 2017 and predicts further expansion this year.

The White House says cocaine production also increased from 772 metric tons in 2016 to 921 metric tons in 2017, representing a 19 percent rise.

The Trump administration ties the increase to hikes in addiction rates and overdoses in the United States.